In a recent paper entitled “The case for colonialism” Bruce Gilley argued that “Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found”. Gilley then argued that colonialism should be “recovered” “by reclaiming colonial modes of governance, by recolonizing some areas, and by creating new Western colonies from scratch”. These are highly controversial claims. But it is unlikely that Gilley anticipated the antipathy with which they would be received. Two petitions were initiated—gathering over 15,000 signatures between them—demanding that the journal in which the paper was published (Third World Quarterly) retract it.These petitions were followed by the resignation of several of the members of the journal’s editorial board in protest at the article’s publication.
But the calls for the retraction of this article are inappropriate responses to Gilley’s controversial claims. Gilley’s article does not meet either of the conditions that the publishers of Third World Quarterly (Taylor & Francis) have outlined for the retraction of articles. It should not be retracted for “unsound results” because its conclusions are not “seriously undermined as a result of miscalculation or error”. And it should not be retracted for “misconduct” for Gilley has made no “infringement of publishing ethics” nor has there been any claim that he has breached any “author warranties”.
The claim that this article should not be retracted is not new. But in response to the antipathy that he has been faced Gilley has requested that the article be withdrawn–not because he now believes that his arguments are mistaken, but because it has cased “pain” and generated “anger”. But Third World Quarterly should not accede to this request–the article should remain available. That an article upsets people is no grounds for its withdrawal. Moreover, if the journal did allow the article to be withdrawn it would violate the policy of the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers Guideline for “Preservation of the Objective Record of Science” (to which the journal’s publisher subscribes) that “Articles that have been published should remain extant, exact, and unaltered to the maximum extent possible”.
It might be argued that Gilley’s paper should be retracted because his arguments do not support his conclusion, and so these are undermined “as a result of… [argumentative] error”. But to argue in this way would require that one first demonstrate where Gilley is mistaken–one would have to engage with his work, not simply call for its retraction. And even if one could show that his arguments were flawed this should not be used to support a call for retraction, for this would justify the retraction of any paper whose conclusions have been arrived at through erroneous argumentation. And this is not how academic debates are conducted—and nor should it be. Instead, persons present their conclusions supported by the best arguments and evidence that they can muster. These are then subject to critical scrutiny with the aim of identifying and correcting errors in the arguments. If the arguments are found not to support the conclusion then the original paper should be rebutted—not retracted.
But there’s more to be said in this case. The petitions demanding the retraction of this article secured over 15,000 signatures. I very much doubt that everyone who signed these petitions actually read the paper. Demanding that a paper be retracted because you don’t like its arguments is bad enough. Demanding that it be retracted because you don’t like what you think its conclusion is without having even read it is despicable. Moreover, if you’re an academic, a demand for retraction on either of these grounds would be a clear abdication of your professional responsibility. It is thus not Gilley who should be censured. It is the academics (such as Jenny Heijun Wills, Rebecca Salazar, and Carrianne Leung) who initiated and signed these deplorable petitions.
As a brief aside: If you object to the mocking of work in English, Gender Studies, and Geography that’s based not on reading the papers but simply on their titles and abstracts (e.g., those offered up for ridicule by places such as Real Peer Review) then you should be even more concerned with the demand that a paper be retracted on the basis of a similarly cursory examination.